Ricotta and farmer’s cheese are two easy-to-make-at-home fresh cheeses, fresh meaning that they aren’t meant to be aged but are consumed within a week of being made. Both are fun to create, especially with kids, because watching the milk coagulate and separate into curds and whey is not only fun, but a great lesson on the protein structure of dairy products (which I don’t have space for here, but an internet search on cheese-making will turn up lots of information).
Ricotta is milder than farmer’s cheese. It is made by curdling warm milk with an acid, such as white vinegar or lemon juice. The resulting soft, granular white cheese is then drained a bit before being stuffed into ravioli, layered in lasagna or mixed with eggs, sugar and a bit of citrus for a simple souffle, among many other possibilities.
Farmer’s cheese is a bit more complicated. Cream and milk are left to sit at room temperature for about three days, allowing lacto-bacilli (the kind of good-for-you bacteria that turn up in yogurt) to ferment the mixture, creating a “sour” smell and taste. After a brief bake in a low oven, the milk and cream separate into whey and soft curds. The curds can be eaten warm or drained for several hours before using.
Farmer’s cheese and ricotta are fairly interchangeable when it comes to recipes, though the more assertive farmer’s cheese holds up especially well to the powerful flavors of other fermented foods, such as olives, capers and preserved lemons, while softer-edged ricotta is particularly good in desserts. And if you don’t feel like making your own cheese, no worries. Just pick up some ricotta or farmer’s cheese at the grocery store and proceed.
1 gallon whole pasteurized milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
1⁄3 cup plus 1 tablespoon of white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
an instant read thermometer
In a large, nonreactive pot, heat the milk to between 180 and 190 degrees (it doesn’t have to be exact). When the milk is at temperature, remove it from the heat and mix in the vinegar and salt with a few good stirs. Let the mixture sit, undisturbed, for an hour, then use a slotted spoon to lift the curds from the whey.
When all the curds have been removed from the whey, return the liquid to the heat; it will begin to precipitate more curds. When it reaches 180 degrees again, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to encourage more curds to form. Lift them from the whey with a slotted spoon.
Place the ricotta in a cheese-cloth lined sieve to drain for several hours or overnight, then pack it into refrigerator containers with tight fitting lids. The ricotta will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.
The whey may be used in other recipes, or it can be discarded. It is good as a soup base, and it can also be poured over chopped vegetables, such as cabbage, to ferment them.
Makes about 1½ pounds.
(based on a recipe in Bar Tartine by Nicolaus Ball and Cortney Burns)
9 cups whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
3 cups heavy cream
Combine the milk and cream in a large, non-reactive oven-proof pot or oven-proof bowl, cover and let sit at room temperature (65 to 70 degrees) for 72 hours. Don’t stir the mixture or disturb it much during this period. After 72 hours, the mixture will contain bubbles and smell a bit sour.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the covered pot or bowl in the oven for ½ hour. The mixture should be covered with golden-colored melted fat and should be obviously curdled. Remove it from the oven and let it sit until lukewarm. Use a slotted spoon to lift the curds from the whey and set the curds to drain in a cheesecloth lined sieve for several hours or overnight. Either discard the whey, or use it as described above.
Makes about 2 pounds.
Fresh Ricotta and Citrus Souffle
3 eggs, separated
¾ cup sugar, divided, plus a little more for the souffle dish
2 cups ricotta, homemade or store-bought
the grated rind (about 1 teaspoon) and juice (about ¼ cup) of one orange
the grated rind (about 1 teaspoon) and juice (about ¼ cup) of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cornstarch
pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
butter for greasing the souffle dish
Raspberry sauce for serving (raspberry jam warmed with a bit of orange juice works well)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 1½ quart souffle dish and then pour a large spoonful of sugar into the bottom of the dish and tip and shake the dish around to coat the butter with a layer of sugar. Set the dish aside.
Place the egg yolks, ½ cup of sugar, the citrus rinds and juices, as well as the vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer and whip with the whisk attachment until pale in color and fluffy. Add the cornstarch and whisk until well combined. Add the ricotta and whisk on low until homogenous. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and set aside.
Clean the mixer bowl very well and dry. Pour the egg whites into the bowl and begin to whip on medium low. Add the cream of tartar and whip a bit faster. When the whites are beginning to make very soft peaks, add the remaining sugar and whip until the whites make shiny, almost stiff, peaks.
Fold the whites carefully into the yolk mixture, just mixing until combined and keeping as much loft as possible. Gently pour the mixture into the prepared souffle dish.
Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Turn the dish 180 degrees, then close the door softly and turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Continue cooking for an additional 20 minutes or so, until the soufflé has risen well, is brown on the edges and seems set in the middle.
Remove from the oven and serve immediately before it falls. It is especially good napped with raspberry sauce, which can be made from frozen raspberries warmed with sugar or raspberry jam melted with a bit of orange juice. If you don’t eat the souffle immediately, it is still delicious the next day, just a bit more compact.
Herbed Farmer Cheese
1 cup farmer’s cheese (homemade or store bought)
8 to 10 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
4 to 5 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
½ a preserved lemon, skin only, chopped; or the grated rind of one lemon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil; or ½ teaspoon crushed dried basil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped capers
salt and ground pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil
crusty bread (for serving)
Combine all the ingredients except for the olive oil and bread; mix well. You can stop right here and serve this as is – it is delicious before it ever hits the oven.
But if you would like to serve the dip hot, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the cheese mixture into an ovenproof bowl, drizzle with a good amount of olive oil, place on a sheet tray and place in the oven. Heat for 15 to 20 minutes. The cheese should be bubbly and brown on top. Remove from the oven and serve with slices of crusty bread.
1 cup ricotta (very well drained, either store bought or homemade)
salt and pepper to taste
red pepper sauce (recipe below)
sliced crusty bread
a clove of garlic
Combine the ricotta with a large pinch of salt and pepper (to taste). Roll it into a log about ¾ inch in diameter and about 7 to 8 inches long. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.
Cut the cheese into rounds about ½ to ¾ inch thick. Round the edges by rolling in your hands but leave them flat on both sides. Set aside until ready to fry them.
Before cooking the cheese, slice the bread into pieces about ½ inch thick and rub each piece with the garlic. Set aside.
Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat and pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the slices of cheese and cook until browned and set on one side before using a spatula to carefully flip the cheese. Brown the other side.
When browned on both sides, place a slice of cheese on a slice of bread. Top with a bit of red pepper sauce and serve warm.
Makes about 12 ricotta cakes.
Red Pepper Sauce
1 fresh red bell pepper
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
salt and pepper to taste
the juice and grated rind of 1 orange (blood orange, if available)
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
Remove the seeds and pith from the red pepper and discard. Place the pieces of pepper in the bowl of a food processor along with the garlic, the sriracha, the orange rind and juice and the vinegar and pulse until pureed.
Warm the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pepper mixture. Cook until much of the moisture evaporates. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper as desired. Will keep for a week, sealed in a container and refrigerated. Makes about ½ cup.